Is it time to resist the temptation of fashion?



It was all very well when you had the 10 Commandments. You knew where you were with the ‘shalt nots’. But today it’s hard not to get caught up in a see-saw between wanting the things you might enjoy in life – like eating steak or taking a holiday abroad –and forgoing them in order not to commit the sin of adding to carbon emissions.

The issue that I admit to getting a bit hung up on is fashion, not surprising perhaps, as, several careers ago, I trained as a fashion designer and I love clothes, and nothing wrong with that per se. At this time of year fashion can be particularly tempting with the new autumn clothes and colours in the shops and the latest designs on show at the various fashion weeks.

But fast fashion in particular is blamed for carbon sins and clothing, footwear and household textiles are the fourth biggest domestic culprits for greenhouse gas emissions after households, transport and food. This is an industry which produces a 100 billion garments a year but only 20% of this production is collected for reuse or recycling, with the rest ending up being incinerated in landfill.

Looked at another way, the rag trade is very big business indeed, creating riches worth $1.7 trillion dollars world-wide and predicted to grow to $3 trillion by 2030, employing over 12% of the world’s workforce. What happens to all those people from machinists to shop assistants if we cut back drastically on clothing and what happens if we don’t?

In some quarters fashion is taken very seriously indeed by those who hold that high fashion should be celebrated as an art form on a par with painting and sculpture and that it is an expression of contemporary culture, allowing endless opportunities for creativity and self- expression. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York holds the largest archive of fashion in the world and the red carpet Met Gala is the biggest event in the fashion year. Celebrating fashion greats like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, the event raised more than $17m. for the museum last year.

Quite aside from all this, we need to wear clothes, if we resist the lure of fashion and novelty would we accept having to wear the same identical unisex uniform day after day in a grim utilitarian future? It goes against the way that self-adornment has been part of human expression long before written history. I remember marvelling at an exquisite bonnet made of tiny cowrie shells in the Museum of Prehistory at Eyzies in the Valley of Man in the Dordogne, probably worn by a Palaeolithic fashionista somewhere between two million to 200,000 years ago.

Part of the problem is overconsumption. According to the UN Environment Programme we buy 60% more clothes than we did 15 years ago and keep them for half the time. There are all kinds of suggestions about how we could modify this: resorting to the circular economy and buying preloved clothes in charity shops – aka thrifting or exchanging them – opting for vintage, up cycling outfits we own, hiring clothing or swapping with each other. There are signs that this approach is catching on especially with the young.

Last year the Irish Charity Retail Report found that 7.3 million garments, worth €43m. were sold in charity shops here, saving the equivalent of 62,230 carbon emissions.

A trawl through by own cupboard showed that a kind of one third principle was at work. About one third were charity shop finds, one third were hand-me-downs, from relatives or friends who had either grown out of or grown tired of them, and about one third were relatively recent purchases or presents. A few are things I made, harder to do these days as fabric and haberdashery shops have gone the way of the Dodo.

The best of the lot though are treasures, those forever clothes that are special but not especially fashionable; not necessarily classics but pieces that don’t date. Perhaps having more of these in future is the way to go.

Vogue, that arbiter of fashion, suggested that about 100 items of clothing should be enough to get us by (40 was enough to do back in the ‘60s apparently). It sounds like a lot especially given shortage of storage space.

Anyway I am heading for my cupboard to do a clothes count and confront my fashion sins.

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